Long-dead poets were alive, sharp and insightful as ever Thursday as 13 Sacramento County students representing their home high schools faced off in the county office of education’s Poetry Out Loud Competition.
Each of the contestants recited two poems in hopes of impressing the panel of five judges. While a handful offered their takes on more contemporary work, most chose to bring the classics to life.
When the war of words concluded, Kennedy High School senior Jibril Kyser was named the winner. Taylor Tuers, who attends Rio Linda High School, claimed the runner-up honors.
After the first round of poems, Kyser wore a cool confidence. He said he knew he’d be good at this, but had blown off competing for three years.
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“Performing arts is in my blood,” said Kyser, who is also Kennedy’s student-body vice president and founder of the chess club. “It was something I should have been doing.”
With a scholarship to Howard University, he said his intended focus was political science, but now he’s re-evaluating things.
“(Competing) just opened a whole different part of myself,” Kyser said. “Now that I’ve done this, I’m thinking about theater. This might have changed my whole life course.”
His mother, Laura Lionetti, said watching her son win the competition was a proud moment.
“I enjoyed watching him grow as he was practicing this,” Lionetti said.
She said her son benefited from doing a poem he could easily relate to. His second poem was “Eddie Priest’s Barbershop & Notary” by Nebraska-born poet Kevin Young. The poem evokes the multigenerational environment of the black barbershop.
“When he did that poem about the barbershop, it came from a very deep place,” Lionetti said.
She said that as a child of a single mother Kyser had learned a lot about being an African American man while waiting in line at Tapers Barber Shop on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
While much of the emphasis in poetry circles has been on performing original pieces, host Jeff Knorr said there is a lot to learn from performing classics. The students were selected from campus competitions that involved 4,700 students. Kyser will be invited to participate in a regional competition.
“These students are bringing to life pieces that could have been written 100 years ago,” said Knorr, the poet laureate for Sacramento city and county.